The Australian government has signed an agreement with Boeing Australia to have the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Loyal Wingman unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) built in Queensland. This means that the entire programme, which is garnering much interest globally, is designed, engineered and now to be manufactured in Australia.
Queensland State Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced; “the creation of additional new aerospace capability could see unmanned defence aircraft produced here by the middle of the decade, with prototype testing and certification taking place before that.”
Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS) aims to see Loyal Wingman in the air this year. The Loyal Wingman will be able to provide ‘fighter-like’ performance to operational ranges of more than 2000 nautical miles whilst carrying onboard sensor packages which will support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and tactical early warning missions.
“The unmanned aircraft uses artificial intelligence to conduct either autonomous operations or to fly “in support of manned aircraft.” Former Australian Defence Minister Christopher Pyne noted last year; “It is designed to be a cheaper platform, a shield if you like around the more expensive platforms, to protect our servicemen and women who might be on a Poseidon or a Wedgetail or an F-35A.”
The platform will be used to take on enemy air defence and act as a sacrificial lamb if necessary. It will also act as an aerial ‘tripwire’ for enemy radar and electronic warfare. The UCAV could also be armed (although there is no public acknowledgement that this capability is yet being pursued), as it has been designed with an internal weapon bay, in which case it could potentially conduct the SEAD (Suppression Enemy Air Defence) mission ahead of its ‘teamed’ and manned strike package of F-35s.
The Loyal Wingman could also off-set state job losses from the retirement of the Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopter and now likely the Taipan multi-role helicopter. A further hit to the local economy will be the rumoured AH-64E adoption which will strike a further blow to Airbus Australia who maintains the Tiger and Taipan and were pitching to replace the current Tiger with a modernised variant.
The latest news from the program is that the Loyal Wingman platform has now successfully conducted its first low speed taxi test with Boeing commenting; “The low-speed taxi enabled us to verify the function and integration of the aircraft systems, including steering, braking and engine controls, with the aircraft in motion.”